Mozart: Violin Sonata in B-Flat Major, K. 454
Strauss: Violin Sonata in E-Flat Major, Op. 18
Janacek: Violin Sonata
Schubert: Fantasy in C Major, D. 934
It had been so long! In my darkest hour, I even thought it might never happen again, both interested parties being such relentlessly busy musicians. That consequently also means that catching a performance of theirs has been relatively easy, and I have certainly been indulging in many of those opportunities, but catching a performance of those two together had been mission impossible for quite a while now.
Hope, however, springs eternal, and this sorry situation at long last changed for the better last Wednesday evening, when inherently artless violinist Joshua Bell and endlessly inquisitive pianist Jeremy Denk stepped onto the stage of Carnegie Hall’s almost full Stern auditorium together to thunderous applause for the Annual Isaac Stern Memorial Concert.
Although I would have gladly showed up for pretty much anything, I was particularly thrilled that the program included Strauss’ Violin Sonata in E-Flat Major, whose intense lyricism had stunned my immediate neighbor and myself at a recital by Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood a few years back. The other three pieces, by Mozart, Janacek and Schubert, would no doubt give the musicians plenty of additional material to treat the audience to memorable virtuosic feats. As it was, all the stars seemed to be aligned, and even the morning snow that had turned to afternoon rain decided to stop falling altogether in the evening.
As soon as the duo started playing the fun little opening number by Mozart, which the composer allegedly performed from memory at the premiere with Italian virtuoso Regina Strinasacchi, it was obvious that the old magic was back and operating in full force. The first sonata the Viennese master wrote in which both instruments were equal partners, his Violin Sonata in B-Flat Major for sure does not discriminate when it comes to challenging the musicians, and the two we had onstage on Wednesday gamely responded with expertise and flair.
I was very eager indeed to hear Strauss’ Violin Sonata in E-Flat Major again, but I was also afraid that the real thing would not live up to my glorious memory of it. There was, of course, no need to worry. Experiencing the sweeping power, lush colors and gorgeous lines of Late Romanticism in such superlative company was as good as it could get. Bell played with his natural elegance and irrepressible élan while Denk kept things interesting with plenty of dynamic playfulness. Why this genuine crowd-pleaser does not appear on concert programs more often remains to me one of the music world’s most enduring mysteries.
After intermission and before resuming the concert, Joshua Bell firstly paid a short tribute to the late Isaac Stern, not only for almost single-handedly saving Carnegie Hall from demolition, but also for being such an important influence of himself and Denk. Secondly, he pointed out that, with Janacek’s dark tones and Schubert’s light-hearted melodies, the second half of the program was a study in contrast linked by quietness that they would attempt to play continuously, and therefore asked us to refrain from clapping until the very end of the concert to see “how that goes”.
And the verdict is, that went very well. Written before and after World War I, Janacek’s Violin Sonata eloquently conveys the turbulences and bleakness of those trying times. Accordingly, there were many uneasy harmonies and exciting eccentricities to be savored in the freely structured, constantly surprising and emotionally gripping work. For the occasion, Bell categorically proved that he is not just a Romantic maven, but is also able to rein in the natural sweetness of his tone and still deliver a riveting performance. Denk effortlessly kept up with his usual precision and verve.
After the Janacek’s quiet ending had seamlessly morphed into Schubert’s quiet opening, we suddenly found ourselves in a much more hospitable world, in which the irresistible sing-songy quality of the Fantasy in C Major, beautifully brought out by the two musicians, lifted up everybody’s spirits and then some. Complex yet breezy, boasting impressive acrobatics and a luminous glow, the delightful piece was sheer pleasure to the ear. That the concert hall slowly became empty during its premiere seems downright impossible today.
The encore, loudly requested and generously granted, was a lovely "Romance" in D-flat Major by Clara Schumann, which had us happily remain in a Romantic mood, and eventually carried me through a more hectic than usual return home.